Wisconsin lawmakers decline to expand free college program

Dive Brief:

  • Wisconsin lawmakers declined to fund an expansion to a free college program that would have allowed low- and middle-income students to attend any University of Wisconsin System campus tuition free.

  • The legislature’s Republican-led Joint Committee on Finance stripped from the state budget $39 million over two years that Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, requested for the initiative. 

  • The now-defunct proposal would have replicated Bucky’s Tuition Promise — a program at the state’s flagship institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison — at all UW campuses.

Dive Insight:

UW-Madison’s promise program allows students from households with an adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less a year to attend the institution tuition free. It started in fall 2018 and covers four years of school for first-year students and two years for transfer students. 

As with many free college programs, Bucky’s Promise is last dollar, meaning it takes into account other forms of financial aid before paying any remaining tuition. Last-dollar programs can be less expensive for colleges and states to operate than their first-dollar counterparts, which do not consider other financial assistance. 

Interim UW system President Tommy Thompson, a former Republican governor of Wisconsin, asked for money in his budget appeal to the state in August to extend the program to all UW institutions. It was part of a budget request seeking a 3.5% bump in state appropriations for the system, which would amount to $95.7 million more in Wisconsin’s biennial budget.

Evers backed the request, including the $39 million for the program expansion in his budget plan. 

But lawmakers on the finance committee removed the funding from the draft budget, which eventually passed the legislature. Evers signed the final version of the budget earlier this month.

A potential barrier to growing the program is that other UW institutions have higher shares of low-income students compared to the flagship. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a larger body of students who demonstrate financial need and a smaller revenue base than UW-Madison, an official from UW-Milwaukee told a local NPR station in 2019. Last year, Bucky’s Promise covered 923 new students, the largest cohort yet, according to UW-Madison. At that time, more than 2,500 students total received free tuition through it.

A spokesperson for the UW system did not respond to an emailed request for comment Thursday. A statement from Thompson and Edmund Manydeeds III, president of the UW system’s board of regents, thanked officials for “providing significant investments in the university’s mission.”

Tuition-free college programs have seen renewed national interest, including from President Joe Biden, who proposed $109 billion to make two years of community college free across the U.S.

And they have cropped up in other states, particularly as the nation recovers from the economic turmoil of the pandemic. Virginia in March established tuition-free community college for students in high-demand fields in the state, while Michigan this year began providing free community college to residents 25 and older.

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